Free-throw line anything but charitable to Memphis, Texas
HOUSTON -- It's supposed to be one of the easiest tasks in basketball.
Fifteen feet from the basket, a clear shot at the hoop is present with the humble free throw. Old-schoolers still call them "charity tosses" because they are presumed to be so effortless.
But try telling that to Memphis coach John Calipari, who has seen his team's inability to hit the open 15-footer turn into its most glaring defect in the eyes of most detractors.
"When we played Mississippi State, we had five turnovers against one of the great defensive teams in the country and 11 blocks. And all anybody wants to talk about is free-throw shooting," Calipari said, his voice rising with a sense of incredulity. "I think it's funny."
The two top seeds in the South Division region both rank in the lower half of the country in team free-throw shooting. Texas is 186th. And Memphis ranks as the third-worst team in the nation, hitting 59.2 percent shots to rank 326th out of the 328 Division I teams.
Calipari said his 35-1 team's struggles from the line have been grossly exaggerated -- even as it prepares for a game in a gigantic football stadium with depth perception issues unlike any it has faced this season.
"We'll miss some, but they really don't play a factor," Calipari said. "They make the game closer. I sweat a little bit. But they are looking at me like, 'Coach, you trust us, we'll do what we have to do.'"
Both Texas and Memphis had near collapses in second-round games at North Little Rock, Ark., that were predicated on their problems at the line.
With Memphis leading Mississippi State by seven points with 49 seconds to play, the Bulldogs starting fouling on purpose. Memphis finished by hitting 4 of 8 foul shots in the final 24 seconds, providing the Bulldogs with a chance to tie the score at the buzzer in the Tigers' 77-74 victory.
I feel we shot them pretty good, but we're not consistent. We've never lost a game because of our foul shooting.
"I laugh every time I hear it because it's not a problem," Memphis point guard Derrick Rose said. "We're still winning, and it's the only thing people can find to dis us with. I guess they have to say something about us."
The Tigers shot 75 percent in their Conference USA tournament two weeks ago, and they hit 72 percent in the NCAA tournament last season. But this team is a group of equal-opportunity clankers with no player hitting at least 70 percent of his foul shots.
"I feel we shot them pretty good, but we're not consistent," Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "We've never lost a game because of our foul shooting."
In the earlier game Sunday in North Little Rock, Texas had similar struggles down the stretch as they almost choked away a 17-point lead in the final 10 minutes. The Longhorns missed 7 of 16 free throws in the final 3½ minutes of a 75-72 victory over Miami.
Their struggles bottomed out when D.J. Augustin, a Cousy Award finalist who is an 81 percent career free-throw shooter, shot an air ball from the line with two seconds left and the Longhorns leading by two points.
That moment was so momentous that it already has been immortalized on YouTube. But the even more remarkable reaction to that play was that of Texas guard Harrison Smith, who, expressing his in disbelief at his teammate's foul-shooting difficulties, mouthed an expletive that was caught by the CBS sideline cameras while they panned Texas' bench.
"It was bad enough that he missed like he did," Smith said. "But he was extra short on top of it. He didn't come close to hitting the rim. I guess crazy things happen in the tournament."
Not much was said after the game, but Augustin's gaffe was the joke of choice for his teammates at Texas' practice the next day.
"He took it pretty good," Smith said. "I guess he was still a little embarrassed about it."
Other teams in NCAA history have been similarly shamed by their late struggles. Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" team featuring Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler hit just 10 of 19 foul shots in 1983, enabling North Carolina State to stay close enough to steal a victory in a title game decided on a rebound on a last-second air ball.
Syracuse hit only 11 of 20 shots in a one-point title game loss to Indiana in 1987. And Kansas converted 12 of 30 free-throw attempts in a three-point loss to Syracuse in 2003.
So there is some historical precedent, even if Calipari begs to differ.
"If you look at our team, there are so many other good things to talk about how we play," Calipari said. "Like how we play defensively, how we swarm, how we play offensively. It's different."
That might be the Tigers' spin, but it doesn't make their late-game struggles any easier for Stanford forward Brook Lopez to watch. After watching Texas and Memphis nearly squander chances to advance Sunday, Lopez said the late clanks by both teams caused him to cringe.
"Not to bag on anybody, but aren't they are called free throws for a reason?" Lopez said. "It's what we are supposed to be doing in basketball anyway, isn't it? It's just shooting."
Lopez, who is hitting 92.3 percent in NCAA tournament games, can be cavalier about it.
Augustin can laugh about his struggles. The Tigers can add this as another element in their collective "Us against the world" mantra as they prepare for Michigan State on Friday night.
But it won't make the shots any easier to make once they step to the foul line.
Tim Griffin covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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NCAA Tournament 2008
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Analysis• ATR: Memphis makes freebies, four No. 1 seeds
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• Griffin: Memphis' athletes overwhelm Texas
• ATR: L'ville's missed chances; how to stop Curry
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• Griffin: The free-throw woes of Memphis, Texas
• Forde: CDR has an effective, old-man game
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• Experts: Sixteen questions for the Sweet 16
• Katz: Washington State's unlikely duo
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• Gene Woj: UCLA's Howland among the best
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